Petersburg looks for motive in slaying

Friends asking why woman was gunned down by ex-employee

Posted: Monday, September 08, 2008

By her friends' accounts, Helen Shear was a gentle and kind woman - soft-spoken and quick to laugh.

Her friends say Shear enjoyed hiking, fishing, loved dogs, and was well liked in Petersburg, where she'd lived for the last 17 years or so.

"Never heard anybody say a bad word about her," said Jane Smith, Shear's best friend.

So why, her friends are asking, was Shear gunned down in broad daylight on Aug. 29 by a former employee who then shot himself?

Petersburg Police Chief Dale Stone said police think they have a handle on why Peter Baron, 44, shot Shear, 40. But Stone said Friday he wasn't ready to go public with a possible motive.

Meanwhile, the rest of the town of about 3,100 can only speculate.

"Nobody knows," Smith said. "It's one person's mind."

"The guy just snapped. Why? I don't know," said the town's mayor, Al Dwyer.

A friend and someone who'd done business with Shear, Patti Norheim, said she'd spoken on the phone a few times with Baron, who looked after Shear's business properties when she and her ex-husband had left town for a few months.

Baron shot Shear with a 12-gauge shotgun without warning in the driveway of Shear's storage business, police said.

Norheim said Baron always seemed nice and amiable on the phone, but she didn't know him that well.

Stone said Baron had only lived in Petersburg for a few years and had a reputation as a quiet worker who kept to himself.

But Shear was known by many.

"It was just such a shock to everybody because everybody liked her so much," Norheim said. "The town's just upside down."

"I think the mood is pretty somber. Everybody is pretty devastated," said Smith, who said she first met Shear when she came to work for the U.S. Forest Service in Petersburg right out of college.

She said Shear was often a foster caregiver for ownerless dogs and volunteered to help victims of domestic violence.

A memorial was held for Shear on Wednesday at a Petersburg church, which was overflowing with people, Shear's friends said.

Friends were asking that memorial gifts for Shear be sent to the animal shelter in her honor.

After the church service, a bonfire and potluck were held at the beach.

Norheim said it was a touching and casual occasion, something Shear would have liked.

Shear was "a real outdoors lady, perfect for Alaska," Norheim said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

• Contact reporter Alan Suderman at 523-2268 or

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